An anxiety has been festering amongst the working class since at least the 1980s: robots are going to take our jobs. Automation has posed competition, especially for blue-collar workers, for decades as their jobs could potentially be replaced by automatons whose name – robots – literally comes from the Slavic word for slave. If their employers replaced them with robots, they wouldn’t have to pay them, but just maintain their basest of needs: repair and energy. Indeed, we have seen exactly this come to fruition over the past decades as these blue-collar jobs have dwindled, replaced significantly by automation. Fewer workers are needed to do the same job. From 1979 to 2010, the number of manufacturing jobs fell from 19.4 million down to 11.5 million, even during periods of growth in other sectors. This is a 41% drop in actual jobs. The share of the job market from 22% to 9% in the same period represents a 5% drop in that respect.
To blue-collar workers, automation poses a threat to their jobs, which is in turn a threat to their livelihood. However, we haven’t fully automated blue-collar jobs, we have automated parts of them; even if a worker’s entire job consisted of tightening bolt B and a machine was purchased to exclusively tighten that same bolt, the worker could be reassigned to another task. Pragmatically, though, there are fewer workers needed for the same output and jobs are inevitably lost, just not all of them. This isn’t a threat to jobs for blue-collar workers today, but a threat to white-collar workers as well since many white-collar tasks are now either performed or simplified by nonphysical automation. Tasks such as taking orders, answering simple questions, and even taking a claim for disability have all been highly automated freeing up people from having to perform the work involved.
Competition, but Only for Some
Those not replaced by machines have their own stresses created by this process as well. They don’t have to compete with the machines – or rather they cannot. I was not designed to tighten bolt B and no human being is going to be competition for a machine designed to tighten bolt B in the realm of tightening bolt B. I will challenge it to a race – I can beat it in a race – but there is no sense in challenging it to tightening that bolt.
However, this does spurn unemployment. To look at this appropriately, we want to look at the labor force participation rate, which the Bureau of Labor Statistics defines as the proportion of men and women over the age of 16 involved in the labor market. Using the starting point previously used by another article to measure manufacturing jobs, July 1978 had 63.2% of the population involved in the labor market while we have 62.9% involved in the labor market in July 2017. It doesn’t seem like a strong drop. In fact, it’s relatively way up from 59.3% involved in July of 1948.
However, that is also in part because the 1970s were marked by women entering the workforce en masse as an early stage of the feminist movement took sway. This growth continued to increase considerably up until about 1990 when automation really began to take hold. In July 1990, 66.5% of the population was involved in the labor force, giving us a 3.6% decrease in participation since then. The big drop happened after 2009, in the wake of the Great Recession, where we see that laid off workers never really got back to work, but rather simply gave up on searching for it.
Think about that number: 3.6%. In 2010 – though certainly lower than now – the US Census Bureau estimates there were 217,149,127 individuals over 16 in the United States – those counted in the labor force participation rate. This would relate to 7,817,369 people leaving the labor market.
It is these nearly 8 million workers that those who didn’t lose their jobs to robots or nonphysical automation must now compete with. As with any product or service, when the market is flooded with it (‘it’ being the labor and time of workers) and the demand for it decreases, the price should fall, especially if on a large-scale with a multitude of relatively powerless providers. Even if you are twice as valuable at your job, it is in the interest of employers to hire someone else at half your price if only to lower the market price. Some displaced workers will, in turn, displace older, higher paid workers or younger, more expendable workers. In any case, the result is wages lower than they otherwise would be.
Also note that this increase in productivity has not come solely from automation, but workers have also been, in recent years, pushed harder and harder to exert more effort and pick up the slack of other coworkers who were laid off.
The Benefits Flow One Way
In fact, over decades, we have seen some massive changes in worker productivity due to this automation. In terms of productivity, a worker in 2002 only had to work 11 hours to be as productive as a worker putting in 40 hours in 1948 and only 23 hours to be as productive as a worker putting in 24 hours in 1975. Both major parties promised shorter work weeks in lockstep with productivity increases in the 1930s, and that was also the time that the famed economist Maynard Keynes predicted that his own grandchildren would be working only 15 hour work weeks.
Productivity has increased to a point that we could work 15 hour work weeks compared to 1948 workers – who were a decade or more past this prediction by Keynes – by a point in the 1990s. Based on recent data, we would have an 18 hour workweek in 2017 compared to 1978 or 8.6 hours compared to 1948.
Indeed, since 1948, Americans have invested much of their increased productivity in higher standards of living: greater automobile ownership, televisions, personal computers, cell phones, cable, internet, and other things that weren’t available back then. Yet, that would only be an accurate assessment until about 1974. This is the point where the rise in wages and the rise in productivity began to separate – and they split even more considerably in 1980. Prior to this point, if productivity went up 10%, profits would go up about 10% and wages went up 10% on average; there was still inequality but the overall trend was that American workers benefited from their increases in productivity. After this point, the general trend is that all the increases are seen in profit while wages remain essentially the same, no matter how productive we are.
Currently, compared to 1970 (prior to this rift), productivity is 125% higher, but wages are only about 5% higher in terms of constant dollars – those adjusted for inflation. Compared to when the split happened, or 1978, which we have used in the beginning, we have lost about twice as much in wages – 1970 was a rather arbitrary point, but the graph used was constructed prior to the explanation. Even the Pew Research Center noted the stagnation of the real value of wages. Lacking the direct numbers used, it seems that productivity has approximately doubled while wages have dropped about 10%. I don’t think the exact figures are important for the analysis, so I am not going to bother at this time to pull up all the figures and do the math – though I may in the future.
Why Automation has Become a Threat
From a societal economic standpoint, automation is simply efficiency – we are able to do more with less effort. If you have the chance to have a robot that can vacuum for you or a machine we believe will wash a whole bunch of dishes for us at once (in reality it only makes them ‘hot’ as a 90’s comedian I woefully cannot place once said) we will jump on the opportunity. These machines free us up to do other necessary things or create free time for us to unwind and enjoy life – perhaps connect with those dear to us.
There is a markèd separation between automation’s theoretical value to society and how it actually affects most of society, which tells us that either our entire system of logic is fundamentally flawed, or there is something fundamentally flawed about our society. The gains from automation go completely or nearly completely to those who own the automatons and who can afford to purchase these automatons is greatly limited to those who already own automatons. In 1974, the produce of these automatons ceased to result in a societal share – if it were fully shared, all would benefit equally from them, but society simply got a proportional share until 1974. Now, all their produce goes to their owners and society as a whole doesn’t benefit from automation but rather a small proportion of society benefits from it.
For a New Deal Democrat, like Bernie Sanders, the solution is simple: raise wages the approximate 120% necessary to bring the productivity to wage ratios back to 1974 levels, if Bernie could even get that out of his mouth. The Fight for $15’s entire mission would be covered in the increase in the minimum wage alone. Neoliberals would of course suggest that we could do with much less and restoring the 1974 level is unobtainable. However, for a socialist, the issue is not reforming the system which would ultimately decay back into its great inequality over time, but to ensure that these automatons which are the culmination of the efforts of all of society for millennia are to the fully shared benefit of all of society.
Let us trace this pattern of automation to its ultimate conclusion: full automation, the stage of productive development that is supposed to bring about a higher stage of socialism according to Marx, or communism – with a small ‘c’ – based upon Lenin’s separation of the two stages into socialism and communism – the two words previously being used interchangeably – the stage of development where scarcity ends, human work is not necessary for survival but rather begins to take place exclusively in the realm of hobbies, artisantry, art, and philosophy and the state, lacking a purpose to exist, dissolves and peaceful anarchy reigns. What happens?
If you, or your family, does not own these automatons that are producing everything and providing all services, what happens to you? To the rest of us? Will they share the bounty with us finally or will they decide that we are just a waste of space? Would we be able to produce for ourselves or will the commons be so thoroughly gone that there will be no resources they have not laid claim to? Will the steady collapse in employment and the trend of drastically cutting social programs at a time when society is better suited to afford them than ever before (it’s a lack of income and military spending, not a lack of resources for them) conjoined with a disregard for the dangers of climate change not suggest that most of us would, whether or not by design, die off long before then; not only expendable, but expended?
Under capitalism, where the means of production – and these automatons are means of production – are privately owned and controlled, all production goes to the few that own the means of production. The rest of us perish. Under socialism, where the means of production are collectively owned and controlled by all of us, we all get to live in the coming world of plenty – we all get to live. Either way, it will of course turn to communism as those there at the end will all be entitled to its luxury – there is no reason that sibling will disinherit sibling once full automation comes.
But the issue at hand – why automation poses a threat to the majority of us – comes down to our relationships to the means of production. Under capitalism, some of us own these means and get the full benefit of them, charging others one half to two-thirds of the value of what they produce on them – under the rules of those who own the machines – for the rights to use these machines. Of course, there are variations; some will get much more of the value of their production or even more than the value of their production, such as corporate officers, while there is of course even slave labor from those who are victims of human trafficking, working in sweatshops, getting much less than this. The rest of us fight for the right to pay this hefty tax to the owners of the machines, often offering to pay more if they’ll just allow us to be the ones who have the luxury of paying that tax.
This automation is the product of the collective work of us and our ancestors – whether they were the scientists and engineers or those who did the work to allow them to specialize. Society made these machines possible, not a handful of wealthy men with capital. However, because they have capital and we don’t, they made sure our government is incapable of pooling capital through taxes – they own the machines that we researched, designed, and built and they leverage them over us, making our mechanical children our enemies instead of our allies.
Socialism is a form of economic organization where, as opposed to capitalism’s private and autocratic ownership and control, the means of production are publicly and democratically owned and controlled. It is why I deny that places like Russia – which despite its early experimentation with worker autonomy – failed to be socialist once they reverted to undemocratic control, no matter how theoretically publicly-owned the means of production were. It does not mean everyone gets the same, but that every worker gets the full value of their production without it being leached off to those who have financial leverage over them. It is under socialism that we are able to collectively benefit from the advances that we and our ancestors labored for over the millennia, a legacy which rightfully belongs to all of us.
Even our forefathers of the American Revolution realized the advancements of mankind as a whole belong to mankind as a whole when they placed limits upon copyrights and patents – allowing them only begrudgingly to encourage innovation and not to rob mankind of its birthright.
“The Congress shall have power […] To promote the progress of science and useful arts, by securing for limited times to authors and inventors the exclusive right to their respective writings and discoveries.” – US Constitution Article I, Section 8, Clause 8
Socialism is the means by which mankind is reunited with its birthright and allies with its offspring.
Society must adapt to new realities in responsible fashion and the crisis of automation upon the American working class is a clear sign that we have failed to adapt when the time came upon us. Capitalism has stopped working and repairing – it is not a long-term solution, it is time to trade it in.